One common denominator that bound the early settlers together was water. Bays, rivers, creeks, streams, swamps, freshes, ponds, points, and landings served as important landmarks. Water was the access point to the land, and served as the access routes to settlement. We have given the name "Tidewater Virginia" to the geographic area that the Virginia colonists occupied. Therefore, an understanding of this aspect of settlement is key to realizing the impact that the rivers, and streams, and their "names" had on the records of this time period.
The five major waterways (rivers) made up the "main streets" and "broadways" of the early Virginia colony. These were the interstate system for settlement. To help understand this network of waterways, allow me to use a hand illustration. The figure to the right is the illustration.
Open your hand "palm up" and spread your fingers as if you are giving the number five. Straighten your wrist and pretend that your forearm is parallel to the ground. Your thumb should be almost straight up from the floor and your fingers opened in a fan like pattern. The palm of your hand represents the "Chesapeake Bay" with your thumb pointing approximately due north. The Chesapeake Bay follows your thumb almost due north to the settlement of Cecilius Calvert (Second Lord Baltimore), who's Charter to Maryland was granted in 1632. The remaining four fingers will represent the four major water ways to colonial settlement. The spaces between each finger represents a section of land, bordered on both sides by water. Your fingers represent the four major rivers, and will point roughly northwest to westward out of your palm. The first finger is the "Potomac River". It points northwest, and will lead ultimately to the future capital of our nation. The middle finger represents the "Rappahannock River". It almost parallels the Potomac River in its northwestern direction, and is the "highway" to my family's first land patent of 1673. The ring finger represents the "Charles River", which had a name change to "Yorke River". It splits into two branches, the "Mattaponi", and the "Pamunkey", some miles inland. The little finger will represent the "James River". It was the major waterway into the settlement, beginning at Jamestown. [No slight is intended by it being represented by the little finger.] The James River branches at the "Appomattox River", with the James River heading northwest and the Appomattox southwest. The tips of the fingers represent "the falls". This was the place were each river would descend from the Blue Ridge Mountains and "fall" into a level that would allow for transportation. This became known as the "fall line", and represented the end of the road for even canoes. The land masses between each finger were settled from the webs (the place were the fingers touch the palm of your hand) to the tips, beginning by the settlements along the James River. This contact point would represent the "mouth" (beginning) of the rivers, and would often be given landmarks called "points". The names of these points would become landmarks [street signs] to the ships arriving to the settlements. "Point Comfort" was the first name given the mouth of the James River! These beginning points were significant because they were often used as the starting locations of surveys for early land grants. A surveyor would begin his survey at a "point" and measure along the river bank in one mile segments. These mile segments would become the "mile markers" for identifying patents that had been given. Thus, when a patent would say "beginning 13 miles up river". It would be counted from these mile markers.
Where the wrist and palm join represents the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay area. The lower wrist and palm would be at the 37 degree parallel. This is important to recognize, since many of the early map makers could determine latitude with some accuracy.
So there you have it. the "Big Picture" of the settlement areas of "Tide Water" Virginia. Each land mass [the areas between each finger], was settled more or less in sequence from James River (little finger), to the Charles River (later Yorke River), to the Rappahannock River roadways. Special circumstances affected the Potomac River area because of conflicts between religious groups and commercial interests.